Dear Abby on Viewing and Caskets

Apr 12, 2010 | 2 comments

Dear Abby recently ran a letter from a woman who wrote in about making arrangements for her ex-mother-in-law who died unexpectedly, without a will. She was very close to the woman, so she worked with her ex-husband to make funeral arrangements that they thought she would have wanted.

They decided to have Mom cremated, but had a four-hour viewing at the funeral home for the benefit of the grandchildren. Since she was going to be cremated, they did not spend hundreds of dollars on a casket just for the viewing, which they didn’t think Mom would have wanted them to do. She was displayed on a table with blankets over her body.

The funeral home received a letter from one of Mom’s co-workers who expressed the opinion that the viewing was disrespectful and in bad taste. The funeral director called to let the woman know about this letter. The woman wanted to know if what they did was inappropriate.

Dear Abby said there was nothing disrespectful or inappropriate about the way Mom’s body was displayed an applauded her for her courage to do things differently and not spend a lot of money on a casket that was to be used only for a viewing.

The first time I saw a dead body was at a funeral home where I interviewed the owner for A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die. He took me into a small viewing room, where a little old lady was laid out for a private family viewing. She was nicely dressed, laid out on a low table, with a blanket over her legs and lower torso. She looked like she was asleep. I imagine she looked a lot like the Mom from this letter. It was a perfectly respectable scene.

I’m guessing the irate letter-writer contacted the funeral home because such viewings were not part of her cultutural experience or maybe she expected everyone to “keep up with the Joneses” to the very end, spending money for the sake of appearances. A couple of things to note:

I agree with Dear Abby that they didn’t need to spend a lot of money on a casket that was to be used only for a viewing. Options do exist for renting caskets for funerals before cremation, much less costly than buying something to be consigned to the retort.

Cremation containers can be as humble as a cardboard box, and that may be what this family chose. Putting her on display in a cardboard box would have been disrespectful. Their choice to do the display with blankets was perfectly acceptable.

I also wonder about the wisdom of the funeral home calling the bereaved to let them know someone had sent them a snarky letter about the funeral of their loved one. In this case, perhaps it would have been better to keep the information to themselves.

And lastly, don’t forget that funeral planning and wills are designed to help the family know what you want done with your body when you check out of this world. It won’t kill you to make some plans.

A Good Goodbye